Learning From Professional Listeners

In the March 1993 issue of Chicago Magazine, the feature story is about the lives and times of Chicago PD homicide detectives. The article intrigued me, not just because it was about the usual death and dying that was part of inner city Chicago back then – and just like now – but because it captured the way people talk to cops. Most people, said the Chicago death investigators, would rather not talk to the cops at all, but if they must, they try to give themselves some extra time to carefully think up their answers. Witness their skilled use of the Double ‘Huh’:

Two Chicago detectives are riding in a car. They see a prostitute they know walking down the street. The cops pull to the curb and the passenger detective rolls down his window and waves for her to come over. She walks to the car and leans down at his passenger side.

Detective:  “How old are you?”

Woman:     “Huh?”

Detective:  “Huh?”

Woman:     “Thirty-two.”

Detective:  “How long you been out here?”

Woman:     “Huh?”

Detective:  “Huh?”

Woman:     “A couple of hours.”

Detective:  “How many times you been arrested this year?”

Woman:     “Huh?”

Detective:  “Huh?”

Woman:     “A couple of times.”

Detective:  “Are you cold?”

Woman:     “Huh?”

Detective:  “Huh?”

Woman:     “Not too bad yet.”

Detective:  “Okay, be careful.”

Woman:     “Huh?”

Detective:  “Huh?” he says as the car begins to pull away from the curb.

Woman:     “Okay!” she shouts as they leave.    

I proved that the Double ‘Huh’ worked in my police career, with a wide variety of people. I’ve demonstrated the utility in conversations with folks in a business context as well. It’s hard to know exactly why it works; it just does. It speaks (no pun intended) to a larger issue, which is that most people are not listening completely; they’re simply waiting for the other person to stop talking so they can start back up again with their points of view.

The Double ‘Huh’ phenomenon adjoins another old rule, one that comes from the business world. First, in sales, never interrupt the customer when he or she is speaking or about to speak. Second, make your offer and then sit there in silence. Let the customer make the next sound. No matter how much you want to break in with some other piece of information about your product or service, sit tight and let the customer initiate the next round of conversational activity. The longer the silence, the more the customer may be considering the positive parts of your offer. If you break his or her train of thought, you could blow the deal. Further, since most people feel uncomfortable with long periods of non-conversational silence, they will usually break in with their own thoughts almost immediately after they realize you’re not planning to speak. This often helps your position.

The late Dr. George Thompson coined the phrase “Verbal Judo” in his 1993 HarperCollins book with the same name. He spent his career building his Verbal Judo Institute, (www.verbaljudo.com) to teach business people in general and first-responders in particular, to engage in real “active listening.” We can define active listening as making eye contact; turning toward the person to close the spatial distance in an appropriate way (not too close, not too far away); nodding; making “agreement” comments (“Wow!” “Interesting” Really?”); and even taking notes, to slow the conversational pace, to show concern, and to make sure you captured the person’s ideas correctly.

But how much active listening do we actually see? I witness lots of business colleagues, couples in a relationship, or two people on a first date staring at their phones, not talking to each other. Or if they do talk to each other, whenever there’s a lull in the conversational momentum, one or both parties reaches for their phones, “just to check back in for a moment” and that on the phone-off the phone cycle starts all over again. The tide has turned so dramatically that if you call people out on caring more about their phones then they do about their conversations with you, somehow you’re anti-technology, not with the modern times, or on your way to becoming Amish. “Everybody looks at their phones when they talk now. It’s just how it is.” That’s their dismissive reply when you ask them not to do it. Many people say this as if they have no choice, or as if there is no value to going back to the pre-smartphone days, where we actually worked on being conversationalists.

Think about the very best conversationalists you know, either family members, friends, work colleagues, or even people who have provided excellent customer service to you over the phone or face-to-face. What listening skills did they all share, to make them so human and so connected to you? I’m betting they waited until you were completely done talking before they asked or answered your questions or gave you useful, related information. They waited until you were finished and didn’t chop off the end of your words with their own (one of my worst habits). They probably asked open-ended questions, instead of just a lot of yes-no closed-ended questions, designed to get you to tell more of your own story or concerns. They were polite, especially when they disagreed or had to give you bad news. They paraphrased and summarized your points with skill, thereby assuring you they heard you.

The opposite of what we might define above as “professional listening” is conversations that are abrupt, off-topic, distracted, filled with interruptions, selfish and self-centered, and tinged with plenty of “me-first” narcissism. People who aren’t good listeners are too pre-occupied with their own issues to hear yours completely. Want proof? You can stop them in their tracks by asking them to repeat the last thing you just said. Between sneaking glances at their phones (or just looking at them blatantly) and not hearing you through completely, they won’t be able to do it.

Rise above their poor communication skills by actually, actively listening to people. Put your phone aside for the duration of the conversation and really talk and really listen. If all else fails, try the Double ‘Huh‘ technique and see if that helps you get more conversational clarity.

Dr. Steve Albrecht is a keynote speaker, author, podcaster, and trainer. He focuses on employee behavioral issues, coaching, security assessments, and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He is board certified in HR, security, coaching, and threat management. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at DrSteve@DrSteveAlbrecht.com

Source: Used by permission by theconversation.com

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